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Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Can we have a debate on the performance of the Highways Agency? The Leader of the House will be aware of the terrible accident that took place in my constituency, because I drew it to the attention of the Prime Minister. In his reply to me, however, the Prime Minister failed to mention that the Highways Agency had taken more than two years to report on the A49. That is two years too late for the people who lost their lives in that accident.

Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State for Transport will obviously take careful note of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which is obviously an important constituency matter for him and for the people who were tragically involved in that accident. I know that my right hon. Friend will want to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.
 
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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate as soon as possible on the findings of the Clywch inquiry, which came out in Wales at 12 o'clock today? Does he agree that this has been an important inquiry that will have far-reaching consequences, and that it shows the value of having a Children's Commissioner in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I very much agree that this shows the value of having a Children's Commissioner in Wales. Indeed, as a result of that pioneering step, the principle is being spread into England as well. The Children's Commissioner has made 31 important recommendations as a result of the dreadful case of child abuse at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, a school in south Wales, involving the appalling behaviour of John Owen, a drama teacher who was really a serial sexual pervert who indulged in repulsive and horrific abuse over an extended period. What was awful about the case was not only the suffering of the children concerned but the way in which those involved in the school and the wider educational establishment pretty well turned a blind eye to all the protests and complaints that were made. This is a very valuable, if disturbing, report to read, as I found out when I did so.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the genuine concerns expressed by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, and other trade unions representing workers in the construction industry. There are about 80 untimely and unnecessary deaths in the construction industry each year, and that is forecast to increase with the increase in the number of migrant workers who can neither speak nor understand English coming into the industry. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an urgent debate on this issue? Thankfully, we do not have the same number of fatalities in the police or fire services or in the armed forces. If we did, there would be calls from Members and from our friends in the press and the media for immediate action. In my view, a life is a life, regardless of where we work.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: a life is a life. That is why the Government are committed to improving health and safety at work, including on construction sites. I applaud the work that UCATT, the builder workers' union to which he referred, does in highlighting this problem. We will continue to work with it to try to solve it.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House to bring forward a draft protocol or indicative guidelines for his colleagues on what would constitute the requirement for a written statement, an oral statement or a full debate? To use the example of the statement by the Department for Work and Pensions this week, he has told us that the important statement means that there will not be service cuts, job cuts or closures of jobcentres or advice centres. In fact, the written statement says that there will be 550 centre closures, and that there will be job cuts, because that is part of the Chancellor's 40,000 job cuts. He has also informed us today that there have been trade union consultations, yet we met the trade unions yesterday, and there have been no consultations. All this confusion
 
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could have been clarified had there been an oral statement from a Minister who would have been able to respond to questions. Will he consider this matter urgently?

Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State will have listened to and noted carefully my hon. Friend's points. He has continued properly to make representations on behalf of the unions and workers involved. I am sure that he will welcome this in two respects: first, we are devolving these jobs to the regions of England, out of the south-east and the London area, where jobs and job opportunities are more plentiful; and secondly, those jobs are going to the front line.

In respect of written statements and oral statements, we have adopted written statements, as everyone is aware, instead of planted questions, which was the tradition of previous Governments. That is much more transparent, up front and clear. Obviously, the balance between written and oral statements is a matter for the Secretary of State to judge initially. Of course, if Members have any complaints, they are entitled to apply to the Speaker for an urgent question in the normal way.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): My private Member's Bill, which would afford compensation to those people who have their gas or electricity supply switched against their will and without their consent, is unlikely to become law because of pressure on parliamentary time. In the absence of further legislation on this matter, can the Leader of the House assure me that the Government will continue to take a dim view of those utility companies that send door-to-door salespeople around the streets of our constituencies, hoodwinking elderly and vulnerable people into switching their gas and electricity supply, and getting away scot-free?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to remind us that the practice continues whereby high-pressure salesmen are going around, preying particularly on elderly and vulnerable citizens, and seeking to bamboozle them with an offer that often turns out in practice not to have been as
 
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advantageous as the one that they were getting. We must make sure that that is stopped. The Secretary of State will have carefully noted his comments.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I thank my right hon. Friend? Last week, at business questions, I drew to his attention the fact that the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber was holding up a major inward investment in my constituency. On Tuesday, just a few days later, there was an announcement that that obstruction had been removed, and that there will now be a £100 million investment by Polestar, creating 1,000 jobs. I thank him for any influence that he brought to bear.

Can we therefore have a debate on another success story? In March this year, in Sheffield, fewer than 10 people were waiting more than nine months for an operation. The target is that by the end of next year, no one will be waiting longer than six months for an operation. By comparison, only a few years ago, people used to come to my surgery complaining that they were waiting two years and longer, particularly for orthopaedic operations. It would be good to have a debate on that important subject, and I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House is not at the forefront of those who are asking for it.

Mr. Hain: It is interesting, as my hon. Friend points out, that that is not one of the Opposition day debates. The Government's policy of bringing waiting times down progressively to 18 weeks over the next few years is very exciting and is giving massive opportunity to patients and those in need of health services. In respect of his constituency matter, his experience over the last week is a great advertisement for the value of business questions, and for the power of Back Benchers to ask business questions and to change practice and policy, almost miraculously, within days.

ROYAL ASSENT

Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Gender Recognition Act 2004

Higher Education Act 2004

Mersey Tunnels Act 2004

Ipswich Market Act 2004
 
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Zimbabwe

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Charlotte Atkins.]

[Relevant documents: The Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 339, on Zimbabwe, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 5869.]

1.15 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): It is the great misfortune of the people of Zimbabwe that Robert Mugabe's regime has no regard for human rights, the rule of law, or the responsibility of government to provide competent economic management. A comparatively prosperous country has been plunged into poverty by the recklessness of its ruling party. Members of the Zimbabwean opposition have been subjected to persistent violence and intimidation. And on the country's farms, regime thugs have subjected owners and workers, the great majority black, but also white, to a campaign of terror. Throughout, the Government of Zimbabwe have acted in defiance of the international community and have used every device to present problems of their own making as the fault of the former colonial power, the United Kingdom. Let me start by briefly recalling the context.

As the House is aware, the Lancaster house conference in 1979 brought independence to Zimbabwe after a long and bloody conflict. One of the main issues at Lancaster house was land reform, and the agreement set out a clear pathway, based on justice and the rule of law, for land ownership in Zimbabwe to be extended. The British Government at the time made it clear that no one donor, including the UK, could pay for the entirety of such a process, but they did commit £47 million to land reform over the following years. It is a mark of the Zimbabwean Government's failure over that period that they handed back £3 million of that £47 million, because they had insufficient projects on which to spend it—a sign that until the late 1990s, the process, whose pace was dictated by the Zimbabwean Government, had been progressing at a relatively modest pace and with a low political priority. This coincided with years of growing prosperity for Zimbabwe.

The idea that this was some kind of golden age for Mugabe's Zimbabwe is false, however. His brutality and desire to stifle opposition by any available means was also increasingly clear. During the 1980s, some 20,000 people were massacred by North Korean-trained soldiers in Matabeleland—atrocities that went largely unremarked by the British Government of the day. Those massacres were only ended when the ZAPU party of Joshua Nkomo was subsumed within Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF, beginning a virtual one-party state in Zimbabwe, which lasted for some 10 years.


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